New US President Joe Biden has signaled he intends to improve relations with Iran. Image: Twitter

New US President Joe Biden has started his tenure with a flurry of executive orders aimed at annulling various of his predecessor’s policies and decisions. But his move to repeal an entry block imposed on several Muslim nations signals a potential more conciliatory foreign policy in the Middle East.

In January 2017, Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769, officially titled Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, which blocked the entry of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen nationals to the US.

It also suspended indefinitely the admission of Syrian refugees and slashed the total number of refugees taken by the US to 50,000 per year. Since all countries blacklisted were Muslim-majority nations, the ordinance became widely known as the “Muslim ban.”

Trump’s move prompted nationwide protests while district and federal courts across the country challenged it on constitutional grounds since it enabled discrimination against people on the basis of religion, which the US Constitution outlaws in the First Amendment.

Six weeks later, amid a legal stalemate, Trump unveiled a “watered down” version of the original travel ban, which was only slightly different from the previous order by excluding Iraq and including non-Muslim nations North Korea and Venezuela to the blacklist, meaning the embargo was not an exclusive “Muslim ban.”

It also stipulated that Iranian citizens with valid student or exchange visitor visas could be admitted to the US and people from targeted countries already holding US visas would not be necessarily refused entry.

After a push and pull of legal arguments between the administration and courts, the Supreme Court waded in and allowed parts of Trump’s ban to go into effect.

The then-US President termed the high court ruling “a clear victory for our national security,” adding in statements that “[a]s President, I cannot allow people into our country who want to do us harm.”

US President Donald Trump recently asked his advisers for scenarios on attacking Iran. Image: Facebook

Trump’s order famously triggered chaos at US airports, where tens of travelers were detained or kept for interrogation while hundreds of others were deported.

According to US Customs and Border Protection commissioners, 721 people with valid US visas were not allowed to board airplanes bound for the US in the first 72 hours after the order went into effect. At least 60,000 visas issued to nationals of affected countries were revoked, according to news reports. Other sources put the figure at over 100,000 visas.

In January 2020, Trump unleashed the third iteration of his immigration restrictions, this time adding Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Eritrea, Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan to the hit list. Four newly sanctioned countries were African nations, inspiring some observers to postulate Trump had complemented his “Muslim ban” with an “African ban.”

Ever since the ban was introduced, global media have been awash with agonizing stories of families that were ripped apart and young professionals, students and academics deprived of opportunities.

Moreover, the ban caused increased stigmatization of Muslim communities in the US that were already in vulnerable positions since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Trump’s executive orders nominally aimed at keeping “foreign terrorists” out of America. 

The Council on American-Islamic Relations chronicled 2,599 hate crimes against American-Muslims in 2017, showing a 94% spike over 2014 levels, which the rights and advocacy group attributed to Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” and his discourse and policies encouraging Islamophobia.

Among the countries covered by the “Muslim ban,” Iran was perhaps hit hardest. In the fiscal year 2015, Iranians were the foremost recipients of US green cards and non-immigrant visas including student visas and B-1 and B-2 tourist visa categories, with 42,542 visas were issued to Iranian passport holders. They were followed by Iraqis who were issued 15,509 green cards and non-immigrant visas.

Anti-war activist protests in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

In the wake of the ban’s enforcement, between December 8, 2017 and March 31, 2019, only 1,607 non-immigrant visas were issued to Iranians, who were either students or were granted waivers from the provisions of the executive order by the Department of State. A total of 18,571 visa applications were denied.

Since the beginning of the implementation of the ban, 98% of people from the impacted countries applying for a US visa were rejected, with only 2% entitled to waivers.

“Before the ‘Muslim ban’, Iran was the 11th leading country of origin for international students in the United States. That all changed after the Muslim Ban, and between 2014 and 2018, the number of student visas granted to Iranian students dropped by half,” said Maryam Jamshidi, an assistant professor of law at the University of Florida, Levin College of Law. “Even when Iranian students had valid visas they would sometimes be turned away by Customs and Border Protection officials at American airports and sent back to Iran.”

Jamshidi believes the “Muslim ban” was “patently racist by design” and built on various Islamophobic tropes about Muslims being inherently prone to violence and terrorism. “It was the first step in what would become a four-year effort by the Trump administration to protect the demographic dominance of white Americans and prevent people of color from immigrating to this country.”

Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director of the Project South non-profit group and the former president of the National Lawyers Guild echoes the sentiment.

“The ‘Muslim ban’ was rooted in white supremacy. The Supreme Court upheld it in June 2018, but we must remember that the US Supreme Court has in the past upheld many repugnant US government policies similarly rooted in white supremacy,” she said.

President Biden’s reversal of the ban has revived certain hopes that immigration will no longer be viewed by the US government as a national security threat but rather an opportunity for economic progress and social development in a country often referred to as “a nation of immigrants.”

“I think the Biden administration has already shown a strong commitment to a more rational and inclusive immigration policy, and I pray that the administration is able to get that policy through the legislature without having to make too many concessions,” said Melody Moezzi, an award-winning Iranian-American author and visiting associate professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington.

“During Trump’s presidency, I heard from countless friends and cousins in Iran who said that America was no longer their first choice of country to which they hoped to immigrate. Canada and New Zealand and several European countries routinely ranked higher for them than the United States. To me, this was a clear indication that America was in decline,” she told Asia Times.

This file handout picture released by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization on November 4, 2019, shows atomic enrichment facilities at Natanz nuclear power plant, some 300 kilometers south of capital Tehran. Photo: AFP/Atomic Energy Organization of Iran

Biden made it clear during the election campaign season that he will seek to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, as a signatory and that engaging with Iran will be one of his top agenda items.

Although he inherits a stockpile of economic sanctions that his predecessor slapped on Iran, Biden has signaled a readiness to embrace diplomacy and abandon Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” gambit against Iran.

Some analysts believe his overturning of the “Muslim ban” is a first policy step towards improving US-Iranian relations.

Pantea Javidan, an attorney and research fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice, is among them. “It’s an important step, alongside reestablishing JPCOA and other measures taken to deescalate conflict.”

“This administration has a major opportunity to change the course of history for the better when it comes to the relationship of the US with the rest of the world, and to play a more positive role than it has particularly for the last four decades to restore and uphold basic human rights and dignity of the world’s people,” she said.

Shahshahani of the Project South in Atlanta also welcomes the termination of the “Muslim ban” as a “positive first step.”

“But US policies towards Iran need to be based on dignity, not domination. Some steps on that front would be immediately re-entering the JPCOA as well as ending all sanctions which immensely hurt the Iranian people,” she noted.